Secondary schools that want to do well in the government’s new accountability measures will need to stop setting by ability, according to a new report.
The recommendation comes in a study published by King’s College London, which says that setting can hold back lower-attaining pupils and would therefore damage scores in the Progress 8 league table measure.
The measure will replace five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths, as the key accountability measure for secondaries from next summer.
Report author Laurie Smith, a visiting lecturer and research associate in education at King’s, said: “The introduction of Progress 8 will focus attention on the less able. It means now is exactly the right time to be considering ending the use of setting.”
In Understanding and Using Progress 8, he says that under the new system, grade improvements by students who started secondary school with low key stage 2 results will count more heavily towards a school’s Progress 8 score than similar improvements by higher-attaining pupils.
“The decision to make Progress 8 the headline figure on which secondary schools will be judged…will require schools radically to rethink their policies on teaching and learning,” the report says.
It notes that the new accountability measure “rewards progress by moderately and less able students more than able ones”, adding: “From a Progress 8 perspective, attainment grouping is harmful because it reduces the opportunities for progress by the moderately and less able.”
The report says there is “strong, repeated research evidence” that teaching in mixed attainment groups “raises the attainment of students assessed as moderately and less able while not disadvantaging more able students”.
‘Harmful to some pupils’
The report is based on teaching and learning in English lessons, but Mr Smith argued that its implications for setting were applicable to all subjects. He said setting was “actually harmful to some pupils”, adding: “You get lower-ability sets where there’s a certain demoralisation, a lack of hope and aspiration, and poor behaviour. Often, those sets are given to less experienced teachers or less effective teachers.”
But some schools told TES that they were not convinced by the proposal. John Tomsett, headteacher of Huntington School in York, said: “I would never let an accountability measure change fundamentally what we do, especially when it comes down to teaching and learning.”
Carl Ward, executive headteacher of the Haywood Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, said his school had a positive Progress 8 score based on current data, and that this was in part because it used ability setting.
“[Setting] allows a teacher to differentiate work,” he said. “It means where we’ve got students at the lower end, we can really push their progress forward.”
Mr Ward added that it was “harder for a teacher to focus on students’ specific needs and drive everybody forward” in a fully mixed-ability class.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said that the government trusted schools “to decide how best to teach”, and that they were free to use ability sets if they wanted to. Progress 8 would “reward schools for the good teaching and sustained progress of all pupils”, she added.
The report also claims that some schools “may be considering” a controversial approach to boosting their Progress 8 scores: pupils are entered for an English literature exam they have not been taught for and are expected to receive a U-grade for, so that their grades in the English language paper are double-weighted for the purpose of Progress 8.
Schools would focus their teaching time on the English language paper to boost students’ grades in the exam, Mr Smith said, and then enter them for the literature tests because of a rule that only permits English language results to be double-weighted towards Progress 8 if a pupil takes both English exams. They would then disregard the English literature marks when calculating the Progress 8 measure.
He said this approach was being “mulled over” by schools but that he thought it showed a “defeatist mindset”.
Progress 8: what your school should do
According to the report from King’s College London, schools should do the following once Progress 8 is in place:
Consider ending the use of sets.
Assess pupils’ progress over five years, in relation to GCSE grades.
Prepare all students for GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths, bringing an end to any other qualifications used in these subjects.
Research teaching methods for English and use those that can be proven to develop students’ cognitive reasoning abilities.